Friends of whoopers track birds' migration north

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

April 24, 2014 at 11:24 p.m.
Updated April 24, 2014 at 11:25 p.m.

A  group of whooping cranes stop outside Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, on their way to  Wood Buffalo National Park.

A group of whooping cranes stop outside Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, on their way to Wood Buffalo National Park.

Chester McConnell first read about whooping cranes when he was in fifth grade.

It was the early 1950s, and McConnell, 76, found a short article about the birds in Weekly Reader, an educational classroom magazine.

"Well, that caught my eye 'cause I've always enjoyed wildlife, being a country guy. But it impressed upon me the whooping cranes were endangered, and at that time, there were only 14 in existence anywhere," McConnell, of Spanish Fort, Ala., said.

Whoopers continued to make their way into McConnell's life as he became a wildlife biologist in Tennessee.

"I've gone everywhere whooping cranes are. My job took me to those places, and I always made it my business to look up the whooping cranes when I had a chance," he said.

McConnell has since retired but remains an active part of the whooping crane community, gathering the latest information about the birds and posting it online.

As the only wild flock of whooping cranes makes its way from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park, bird enthusiasts across the U.S. share pictures and reports of their sightings.

About 80 percent of the estimated 304 wild whooping crane population has left the South Texas coast and is well on its way to Canada, Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in a whooping crane update Thursday.

"A significant portion of the population appears to have made it across the border into Canada. Right now, we have whooping cranes spread out from the wintering grounds nearly to the breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park," Wade wrote.

The population does not migrate all at once but in small groups, which helps to ensure the survival of the species in cases of bad weather, he wrote.

During the past two weeks, Friends of the Wild Whoopers has received a number of reports of whooping crane sightings at the Platte River in Nebraska, at Cheyenne Bottoms refuge and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas and at Aulne, Kan., McConnell wrote in an online post Monday.

McConnell partners with Pam Bates, another crane enthusiast, to run the website, which began in February.

A self-described "loonatic," Bates' love of feathered friends began with loons. In 2010, she read an article about the reintroduction of an experimental flock of whooping cranes in eastern U.S. and became a "craniac."

Bates, who lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York, has never seen a whooper but has become passionate about helping people become more aware of the wild flock.

McConnell and Bates hope to make Friends of the Wild Whoopers a nonprofit that will help buy easements of land to maintain and increase the habitat where the birds winter, nest and stop during their migration.

"As the population increases, we need more land around Aransas and the migration corridor for the birds to stop over and rest," McConnell said.

But in the meantime, the duo are focused on sharing their passion about the endangered bird with readers.

"They're a beautiful bird. And they're the largest bird in North America. People just fall in love with them when they see them," McConnell said. "You just have a soft spot in your heart for about anything that has a hard time getting along."



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